Dimity Reed Architect, Writer, Producer, and Director of Launch Housing  / 
a mad, wonderful time

story / Interview / July 24, 2017

I started architecture straight out of school in 1960 at Melbourne University. We had a mad, wonderful, time. I got married to another student, rather foolishly, after a couple of years. My husband decided he was interested in film, so he gave up architecture and went to work for Channel 9. Then we had baby and went to live in London, which everyone was doing at the time. Nobody does it now. None of my children are the least bit interested in England. We lived in England for 4 years and had more babies.

I didn’t work during that time, however I am renowned for getting involved in things. When I was pregnant with our first son, I got very involved in painless childbirth, which was a Russian obsession at the time. It was very interesting. I told my doctor, “I want to do this Russian thing where you don’t have any pain killers, you just learn how to control what’s happening.” He said, ‘Oh yes you can do that. Go and see Mrs Frame.” So I went to this fantastic physiotherapist who held classes with a dozen of us who were pregnant at the same time and she taught us the potential for our brain to overcome perceptions of pain. It was possibly the most important thing I have ever learned. The dozen of us got on well and enjoyed ourselves.

So we decided to start the Childbirth Education Association to teach everybody how to have wonderful babies without pain. This is the storey of my life. I just get involved in things! It was terrific. Then we realised there were a number of people who needed to know how to stop having babies and so some energetic people started the Family Planning Association. A great supporter of both enterprises was a radical young professor of O & G at Monash University, Carl Wood, who was busy inventing IVF at the time, and he asked me if I would write a book with him on pregnancy. So we wrote The A to Z of Pregnancy together. It sounds so ordinary now but then you weren’t allowed to send information on contraception through the post and the ABC wouldn’t use the word pregnancy’!

Then my marriage ended. So I went back to architecture, which I hadn’t finished. I just rang up Professor Brian Lewis, and said I wanted to return to finish the course. Brian was divine. He said, ‘Your husband was way too handsome, you should never have married him! Of course, come back.’

When I graduated I worked for Kevin Borland. Kevin was another fabulous mentor. My children were at school at that stage. After a while, I decided I going to have to work on my own. As it was hard fitting in work with kids’ school hours. And so Kevin gave me the job I was working on in Mt Eliza and I started a practice on my own. It’s not amazing, it’s called desperate, really. There you are, you have no money and you have three little kids running around.

I had always been involved in public housing. I grew up in South Melbourne which was very poor at that time, in my grandmother’s boarding house. The Housing Commission came along and demolished streets of houses that my grandmother’s friends lived in, and they put up rows of walk-up flats. I thought, this is extraordinary, this is not how it’s meant to be. They didn’t tell anyone what was happening. I decided public housing was my issue. It was a major reason why I did architecture.

Then a most extraordinary thing happened, a government minister rang me, seemingly quite drunk at about 10:30pm one night and said he had been trying to get onto me because I was interested in public housing. He said: ‘I thought you might like to be on the Housing Commission?’ I think at the time, there were three commissioners and a chairman who was Director of Housing. The Housing Commission was going through a terrible time because of all the land deals and corruption. It was on the front page of the paper every day. My friends said to me “Don’t do it!, They are just getting you as a woman to fob off criticism. They won’t let you do anything.” And I thought ‘Bugger it! Of course I will do it!’ It doesn’t matter what their intent was, it is what you can do in a position.

Then Jeff Kennett came in as the new Minister, aged 32, and wanted to change the world. And we had a fabulous Head of Housing, Roy Gilbert, who was determined to try anything to improve the situation. So we slowly started an extraordinary series of projects with a wonderful woman, Jan Cochrane, who lived in Broadmeadows as a housing commission tenant. She came in to see me and said, ‘Everyone is very poor in Broadmeadows and I want to start a food co op.’ We gave her a house and she set up her co-op. She was, and indeed still is, a star. We then said to her, “Okay, we have endless issues with the high rise and we need help.” So we asked her to come in and work as a tenant liaison. She worked on the basis that one floor would work like a suburban street, so that everyone will act like neighbours on that street. She altered the way those buildings worked.

Around that time we decided to start Women in Architecture. I was probably around 30 at this stage. We all got together and we had a wonderful time. A couple of good practices formed out of the group, and everybody felt supported. Before that, the moment you had children, you tended to step away from practice. Most felt demoralised because you couldn’t get into a firm and say, “I will get in at 9:15 and I need to leave at 3:15.” It wouldn’t have been possible. So women just left architecture.

Women in Architecture went on for about 10 years. We had some of the older women architects who had really had a hard time as part of the group. We approached Allison Harvey, who had been a partner in the biggest hospital practice in the country, to talk to us. During WW2, all the senior architects in the practice had gone to war and Alison was left to run the practice. She decided she had to know how to run it so at the end of each day she caught the tram to RMIT to become an accountant. And she ran that business throughout the War. She built all the hospitals for the Americans in the islands right around the Pacific, and all around Melbourne. She was an extraordinary women. And of course when the blokes came back from the war, she was sent back to her desk and the blokes took over. And because of the time that it was, she never said anything.

We had a Women in Architecture event where we asked Alison Harvey to come along and talk to us. She couldn’t quite see the point of why all the women architects wanted to get together with no boys around. Anyhow, we asked her to talk and she actually dissolved into tears, she wept, when she was talking to us because it was the first time in her life, (she would have been well over 70 at the time) that she talked about what had happened to her. She showed us pictures of all the principals at her firm, all lined up and she was standing next to them, dressed as a man. There is some extraordinary history there.

Some young women architects from around town and I have decided to do an exhibition on ‘Architects as Activists’. I have to admit we haven’t actually done anything yet but we will!

Predominantly now, I am involved in homelessness. I am on the board of Launch Housing. We invent projects. I am now making a film on homelessness with another friend because we think we know how to fix it. You see what smart arses we are! Every state and the federal government spend an awful amount of money keep people homeless. Feeding them, giving them overnight accommodation, keeping them in hotels. All they have to do is supply more housing. It is so much cheaper and kinder to house a complex person and then look after them. And not everyone is complex. Some people just need a house, a place with a key to the door to say it’s theirs. I think the reason it hasn’t happened is because bureaucrats aren’t highly active. It’s easier to dole out the money to the not-for-profit sectors around the country. Whereas, if they actually had their wits about them, the money could be invested more successfully. Building housing gets people employed and housed and leads to a more coherent society

The University of NSW have done very long research project on 14 people who have been jailed multiple times – not for crimes really against society but because of drugs, alcohol, mental illness. This is the story of thousands of homeless people who end up in jail. They are usually in jail, then out of jail, then on the street, then back in jail, because they get fed and it’s easier and a lot safer in jail. So the UNSW got 14 people and tracked them over years at every interaction with a government department and they added up all the costs. A 12 year old indigenous homeless woman who remains homeless at 22 has cost the government $5.5 million. It’s both cruel to her and madness in society’s terms. And that is our key point. She could have been housed properly when she was 12, with her mother, if she had actually had support with medical help and the last 10 years would have been a lot easier for both mother and daughter. The costs are enormous. We just shouldn’t do it.

I was on St Kilda Council many years ago and the CEO was Jude Munro. We became great friends. Jude has now got this great project going; a Pride Building for the LGBTI community. St Kilda Council has given them a fabulous block of land to build on and she has asked me to run an architecture competition. The aim of this building is for a number agencies and groups within of the LGBTI communities to be housed together as a focal point. To have a space. It is such a fabulous site to really act as a key catalyst for the regeneration of Fitzroy Street. We want a remarkable, confident,  extroverted building. This will be the first Pride building in Australia.

I think it is important that we teach women architects and project managers how to deal with banks and other investors. I think there are real lessons to be learnt such as introductions to people who will fund projects. Women are not privy to that information easily. I have made this point all my life – about how men stand next to each other at urinals and they are buddies for life. They play golf, they lunch together and they do everything together. It sounds silly but I think it is a really important thing. Blokes feel bloke-y there. They protect each other against the world of women who are outside clammering at the door. In summary, I think male networking starts at the urinal. We need the senior women in banking and development to teach younger women how to meet the people who make decisions. And how to talk to them. And it’s got to advance beyond academia because they generally don’t do it.

I tell my children that you need to give back. In whatever way and whatever stage of life you are, you give back.

 

What could we possibly say about Dimity, to do her justice. As you can see, her piece is longer than our usual interviews…purely because cutting anything she said was a torturous affair, given her eloquence, spark and the weight of wisdom that hung on her words. It is without a doubt, so humbling to meet someone like Dimity. Someone who really had to go out there to prove herself in what was really a man’s world. Someone who has gone above and beyond anything she has ever set her mind to, in order to contribute to the world she lives in. Someone who could be sitting back and enjoying a well deserved retirement, but who in fact continues to contribute with such a vivacious spirit to the built environment and the arts. We hope you enjoy this piece and we hope it serves as a tribute to this strong and astounding women. We hope we grow up to be like Dimity! J&D x

2 thoughts on “Dimity Reed Architect, Writer, Producer, and Director of Launch Housing

Meg   July 31, 2017 at 9:05 am

Great story – really warm and interesting. I was struck in reading it about Jane Caro’s comment in the weekend press that we aren’t inspiring, or awesome – just ordinary. I think frankly Dimity falls in the inspiring category.

Anna Houston   July 31, 2017 at 4:37 pm

Wonderful interview. What an inspirational woman!